Wednesday, October 31, 2012

SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *naturalistic,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *irony,* (2) *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *psychological, sociological,* (2) *psychological, metaphysical, sociological*


Originally I thought I'd celebrate Halloween with a review of a "hallowed" monster, namely that of 1958's RETURN OF DRACULA.  But since that film has been so often compared to Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 suspense-film SHADOW OF A DOUBT-- which I also re-screened recently-- I decided to make this a compare-and-contrast essay.

In keeping with most of Hitchcock's oeuvre, DOUBT generates suspense by presenting how such extreme phenomena as violence and psychosis burst forth from apparent normality.  In this case, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is fleeing detectives seeking him as the suspected "Merry Widow" killer, known for marrying and murdering rich old women.  To escape the detectives the killer goes to ground in the small town where he was born, where his sister Emma has married Joseph Newton, a dull but respectable banker.  Of the Newton family children, one teenaged girl, henceforth tagged "Young Charlie," has been named after the long-absent uncle.  When Young Charlie learns that her well-traveled uncle is coming to town for a prolonged stay, she's ecstatic, for the girl is largely bored with her humdrum existence.

The skill of Hitchcock and his three writers (one of whom, Thornton Wilder, had already become celebrated for another take on small-town life in 1938's OUR TOWN) is that the story offers no clear choice between the deadening routine of ordinary existence-- where, significantly, Young Charlie's father and his best friend debate on the best ways to murder one another-- and the superficial charm of Uncle Charlie, which masks a near-psychotic misogyny.  Slowly Young Charlie's adulation of her exotic uncle turns to horror as she uncovers his identity, though the knowledge of his murders may not be as bad as being forced to see the world in his cynical terms:

You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.



Like most of Hitchcock's works, DOUBT is entirely naturalistic.  There's nothing strange or unworldly about Uncle Charlie; he's a reflection of not only his own personal psychotic quirks but also of the overturning of all of society's standards and rules.  Some critics have suggested that there's a subtext of incestuous fascination between Charlie and his sister Emma.  So it may be no coincidence that Emma has married a banker, while psycho-Charlie rails against the women he's killed, the women "smelling of money."

Paul Landres' RETURN OF DRACULA is nowhere near this ambitious, for all that it also centers on a young female in a small town being victimized by an exotic relative.  However, one of the strongest disparities between RETURN and the earlier film is that there is no actual familial relationship between the two. 

Interestingly, the film begins not with Dracula but with an ordinary Eastern European man, Bellac (note the name) Gordal, first seen preparing to debark on a train that will leave his homeland, so that he may reside with his relatives in America.  Though there are no overt mentions of Communism, Bellac's well-wishers congratulate him on having achieved "freedom" by journeying to America.  Bellac never makes it, for Dracula is on the same train.  The vampire lord kills Bellac, disposes of the body, and takes Bellac's place on the trip to America, and a different type of "freedom."  Later Bellac/Dracula echoes the earlier comment on freedom, but the vampire wants the freedom to expand a new empire onto virgin territory.  There are no sociological parallels between the vampire and European Communism, however: Dracula's kingdom, as he himself later says, is the kingdom of death.

Like Young Charlie in the Hitchcock film, teenaged Rachel also idolized her foreigner uncle, though this time she's never met him; they've only exchanged letters.  Like Young Charlie, Rachel is the only one in her family--consisting of widowed mother Cora and pesky little brother Mickey-- who's discontented with her drab existence.  (Interestingly, the family name is "Mayberry," but it's two years before that name would become emblematic of small-town life thanks to the ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW.)  However, neither director Landres nor writer Pat Fielder-- who also collaborated with Landres on THE FLAME BARRIER-- suggest that Rachel's discontent is more than superficial teenaged rebellion.  After "Cousin Bellac" shows up to meet the family at the train station, he charms Rachel, her mother and her brother, but not so much Rachel's boyfriend Tim. Prior to finding out Bellac's true nature, Rachel constantly insists that Tim ought to be more cultured like Rachel's worldly older cousin.  However, she yields easily to his juvenile displays of affection, so her attempts to reshape him must be seen as no more than feminine assertiveness, not real discontent with her life.

There's no interaction to speak of between Cousin Bellac and the widowed mother, but this time the young boy has a little more to do than provide comedy relief.  In fact, before Dracula even arrives in town, Mickey coincidentally stumbles across the place that will serve as this Drac's secluded Carfax Abbey: an abandoned mine, marked with a sign reading "Open Pit."  Though the film isn't heavy on Christian symbolism, I can't resist noting what the word "pit" usually connotes in that sphere. 

In fact, an inadvertent sacrifice takes place in the old mine, for Mickey's cat wanders off and gets stuck down in the aforementioned pit.  Mickey sees the cat and runs to get help, but the arrival of Cousin Bellac takes up everyone's attention.  When Mickey comes across his cat later-- it's not clear where the boy finds the feline-- the pet has been bled and killed.  It's rather unusual for traditional vampires to feed on animals, but the detail is largely a means to show the audience that Dracula has taken up residence in the old mine.

In a rather complicated arrangement, Cousin Bellac merely pretends to sleep by day at the Mayberry residence.  In fact, he spirits himself away to the mine, where he's set up his coffin.  Presumably the coffin is filled with the earth of his native land, as per the mythology of Bram Stoker, though the film doesn't say so, and doesn't say how Cousin Bellac transported the coffin to the mine.  One assumes that the coffin was shipped on whatever transports took Bellac to America, which suggests that Dracula went through a great deal of preparation to assume Bellac's identity.

In any case, whenever Rachel or anyone else ventures unexpectedly into Cousin Bellac's room, he's simply not there-- which may be a reason that the British release of the film was called "The Fantastic Disappearing Man."

Dracula, though not too picky to feast on a cat, doesn't pursue either Mickey or Cora, and can't immediately vampirize tasty Rachel since she regularly wears a crucifix.  Also in Stoker-tradition, he decides to go after one of Rachel's friends first; a young blind woman to whom Rachel reads books.  In a tense scene, he comes to blind Jennie at night, asking her if she can see him.  She responds that she can, just before he kills her-- but not permanently.

Jennie's death doesn't immediately tip off Rachel, but it does heighten her suspicions somewhat.  Bellac comes to Rachel in dreams, attempting to make her get rid of the crucifix.  Meanwhile, Dracula himself has been followed to town-- just like the detectives pursuing Uncle Charlie in DOUBT-- by men from his native country who know his true nature.  In wolf-form the vampire kills one of the pursuers, but not before he gets photographic proof that Cousin Bellac doesn't show up in photographs.  This enables the other pursuer to gain the help of the local minister and the sheriff in opening Jennie's crypt.

This event takes place at the climax, just as Rachel and Tim have found their way to the old mine.  Dracula, though he's already revealed his vampiric nature to Rachel earlier, attempts to make Rachel surrender her crucifix, first with blandishments, then with vampiric hypnotism.  He's briefly set back when Jennie is staked, for Dracula feels the pain of the stake empathically.  But in the end Rachel's crucifix has the main triumph, causing Dracula to back away from her until he falls into the pit (forgetting how to change into a bat?) and gets staked on some pointy mine-timbers.  One might say that the Lord of Death is finally returned to the pit where he belongs, to say nothing of suffering the same fate as his first American victim.

While there's not much likelihood that Landres and Fielder weren't influenced to some degree by SHADOW OF A DOUBT, RETURN OF DRACULA displays its own strong creative identity.



Tuesday, October 30, 2012

STUDENT BODIES (1981)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair,*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

The tagline for STUDENT BODIES was insufferably pretentious: "At last, the world's first comedy horror movie."  Even unseasoned neophytes among the mavens of horror will know that this was nonsense. 

What the advertisers may have meant to say was that BODIES was the first comedy version of the slasher subgenre.  Even that is debatable.  The statement works only if one considers a "slasher" to be nothing but that particular type of horror-film commercially nurtured by the successes of HALLOWEEN (1979) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), and leaves out all of the many precursors of the slasher-flick, some of which had comedic versions.

BODIES has a handful or two of funny lines or situations, particularly those revolving around the above-seen slasher-suspect Mr. Dumpkin, the shop teacher with a fetish for horsehead bookends.  However, as one slogs through all the stuff in BODIES, there's probably ten jokes that don't work for every one that does.  I suspect that the script by one-time director Mickey Rose (whose directorship was aided by an uncredited Michael Ritchie, according to imdb) was one where he didn't work too hard to prune away the unfunny stuff.  Possibly he thought the intended audience would accept pretty much anything aimed at the then-popular slasher genre-- an attitude we still see in the rash of transitory spoof-films like EPIC MOVIE, DISASTER MOVIE. On the other hand, Rose's best-known film-scripts-- his collaborations with Woody Allen on BANANAS and TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN-- were also marked by a scattershot approach to comedy.

Given that Rose is taking a "kitchen-sink" approach to spoofing the slasher genre, it's perhaps a miracle that he hit any of his more-than-obvious targets.  First and foremost, Rose goes after the supposed "prudish" reputation of the slasher-film, in which "loose" women are victimized while those who are more reserved are expected to survive.  His viewpoint character, the androgynously named "Toby," dresses primly and rejects the tendency of her high-school peers to have constant sex.  Meanwhile, an unseen heavily-breathing assailant-- called "the Breather" from the very beginning-- is knocking off teens and putting them in plastic garbage bags.  Strangely, as if in response to the accusation that slasher-films disproportionately target women, most of the killings include both one horndog male and one slutty female.  Toby confesses to the school psychologist that she came to despise sex when "my father locked me in my room-- with him in it."  Nevertheless, she's more upset by the repeated killings at her school, and determines to find the killer, even if it means dressing up like a slut herself.

It's hard to take seriously any of the film's junior-league Freudianisms, except for one...


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

... in which it's revealed, long before SCREAM (but way after BLOOD AND BLACK LACE), that the one killer is actually two. In this case, it's the principal and his aged secretary, who are acting out the role of repressive adults cutting down the flower of youth.  They're even strictly hetero in their killings, with the female secretary killing all the young males and the male principal taking out the females.  This is the closest Rose gets to some insightful psychological mythicity.  So of course it's nothing more in his hands than a toss-off.

In my categories above I've labelled this film "marvelous," which requires a little explanation.

Up to a certain point in the film, it appears to be a comic take on the trope of the "perilous psycho."  There are absurd things that happen, but none of these are supposed to be real within the diegesis.  These nonsense-bits would *normally* call for the label of naturalistic "delirious dreams and fallacious figments..."

Except that near the end Toby wakes up from what has been an extended dream-- i.e., a "delirious dream" in the uncanny phenomenality, since it does interrupt the diegesis.  And so again BODIES seems to be in a different category of the uncanny--

Until Rose's script takes one more (thankfully brief) tangent, this time into the phenomenality of the marvelous, when (1) Toby, liberated by her dream from her old prudery, attempts to get with her boyfriend for some lovin', (2) he kills her for being loose, and (3) as he visits her grave, her hands burst CARRIE-style from the ground and grab him, at which point the image freezes and the film ends. 

Perhaps Rose thought that this derivative tip of the hat to the dePalma film would help audiences remember and recommend his low-budget, no-name-cast flick.  Perhaps he meant it as some acknowledgement that frumpy Carrie White seems a closer model for Toby than slasher-heroines like Jamie Lee Curtis. But either way, it may be the single lamest joke out of many in STUDENT BODIES.



Saturday, October 27, 2012

LICENSE TO KILL (1989)


PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

At the beginning of my review of the two XXX films, I wrote:


Most films in the “superspy” subgenre lie beneath the colossal shadow of the James Bond books and films. This means that like those sources, latecomers have the same ambivalence as to their phenomenal qualities. Sometimes they seem to take place entirely within a naturalistic world, and sometimes in one that includes just a few uncanny aspects. And sometimes the superspy’s world possesses outright marvelous aspects, though these are usually confined to specific super-weapons, like Bond’s invisible car in DIE ANOTHER DIE. 
Because a few of the weapons in the two-film XXX series qualify for the “marvelous” category, both films fall into that category as well. However, the general approach of the films is closest to a naturalistic spy-series like the Bourne films, so that the presence of marvelous gadgets in the narratives is somewhat marginalized and treated with a almost condescending irony.

When I wrote the above I hadn't screened either 1987'S LIVING DAYLIGHTS or 1989's LICENSE TO KILL in many years, so  I wouldn't have remembered that the two Timothy Dalton films displayed a similar attitude toward the super-gadgetry of certain Bond films, possibly including the last two in the Roger Moore corpus, OCTOPUSSY and A VIEW TO A KILL, both of which deviated from the more realistic Bond seen in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.  LICENSE TO KILL is even more dismissive of Bond-gadgets than DAYLIGHTS, for in the earlier film Bond uses a couple of marvelous gadgets in the field.  In LICENSE, the gadgets-- one camera said to shoot bullets and another that shoots what appears to be a laser-- only appear in one scene where tech-whiz Q shows up to give Bond the benefit of his weapons-advice.  In practice, Bond only ends up using one mundane hand-gun from Q's arsenal, though one of Bond's foes does remark on the gun's special qualities.

Possibly even more than in DAYLIGHTS, the producers hoped to remold Bond to make him more "relevant" to eighties audiences by making him an icon of the "just so no" campaign against drugs.  It's true that various Bond books had the hero go after drug-purveyors, as did some of the film adaptations.  But there was no drug-connection in the Fleming short-story that spawned DAYLIGHTS, while the original screenplay for LICENSE by veteran Bond-scripters Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson is all about Bond taking down the powerful Columbian drug kingpin Franz Sanchez.

To be sure, Bond goes after Sanchez not because of his business but in response to the old "he wronged my best buddy" trope.  Borrowing a scene from the book LIVE AND LET DIE, Sanchez wreaks vengeance on his nemesis, Bond's FBI buddy Felix Leiter, by having Leiter's legs mangled by a penned shark.  To avenge Leiter-- not only for his maiming but also for the rape and killing of Leiter's new bride-- Bond refuses the orders of his superiors and goes rogue.  However, this doesn't signal a serious departure from the Bond mythology: not only does Q make a rare unsanctioned trip into "the field" to aid Bond, M is patently sympathetic to Bond's quest.  After Bond's inevitable triumph, he's welcomed back to his old job without no mention of even some minor slap on the wrist.

Were it not for the marginal appearance of the weapons, LICENSE would be one of the wholly naturalistic Bond-films.  Sanchez is certainly a better villain than the two foes who occupy Bond's time in DAYLIGHTS, with actor Robert Davi portraying in him a formidable combination of violence (he's first seen whipping his mistress for sleeping with another man) and ruthlessness. Sanchez even professes a code of honor-- though it's a jaundiced one, in that he claims he values loyalty above all, but shoots one of his aides to death for mouthing off.  Bond spends a fair amount of time whittling away at the resources of one of Sanchez's major allies, Milton Krest (named for a dislikable character in the melodramatic Fleming short story "The Hildebrand Rarity"). 

Bond also makes a few allies-- both "good girls"-- Lupe, the mistress seen being whipped at the opening, and Pam, a tough female pilot/ex-CIA agent.  Both women compete for Bond's attentions, but neither qualifies as a "bad girl," though Bond briefly suspects Pam of duplicity.  In the end Bond worms his way into Sanchez's operation, much as the novel-Bond did in GOLDFINGER.  This leads to Bond finding out Sanchez's new plan to smuggle drugs out of his country, hidden in oil-tanker trucks-- a nice blend between two "foreign commodities" on which the U.S. became overly dependent in the eighties.  After the usual splashy Bond-stunts Bond has a concluding battle with the tough-as-nails Sanchez, who gets Bond on the ropes and only loses because Bond has an ace in the hole.

Sanchez's punishment of Leiter is the closest thing where he comes to committing a "bizarre crime," but while it's true that this isn't the most mundane way for a crime-lord to dispose of an enemy, I still label this trope as naturalistic in that the film doesn't conjure forth any *strangeness* in presenting this atypical murder-method-- in contrast, say, to Emilio Largo's heisting of two atomic bombs in THUNDERBALL.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

CURTAINS (1983)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*

CURTAINS is a stylishly photographed (by cinematographer-turned-director Richard Ciupka) Canadian take on the then-prevalent slasher genre.  It's possibly a little too "tony" for anyone looking for a festival of "babes and blood," but it delivers some good shocks despite the lack of the more visceral elements.  The writer, interestingly, was also responsible for one of the best known exemplars of 80s slashers, 1980's PROM NIGHT.

CURTAINS' script puts a high emphasis on creating a back story for the first two characters, Stryker (John Vernon) and Samantha (Samantha Eggar), a movie-director and an actress respectively, who have enjoyed both professional and private relations together.  Samantha purchases the rights to a property called "Audra," concerning a madwoman, which she wants Stryker to direct.  The film fails to get financing, but Samantha decides to research the role anyway.  With Stryker's help she gets herself committed to a mental asylum, so that she can play the Audra character with conviction.  Her expectation is that Stryker will release her when she's completed her research, but the cold-blooded producer sees her commitment as an opportunity.  He simply leaves her in the asylum, plannning to promote the film with a new and younger actress in the role.  Samantha escapes and learns that Stryker is auditioning six young actresses at a mansion in the snowy hill-country.

The script deftly juxtaposes images of youth and age in keeping with Stryker's courting of younger actresses to replace Samantha.  While in the asylum, Samantha, though not an old woman, feels her sanity threatened by her interaction with the real madwomen of the asylum.  Stryker uses the auditions as a 'casting-couch' whereby he seduces at least one of the aspiring actresses.  And when the expected killings of the young actresses commence at the mansion, the mystery killer-- whose gender can't be decisively determined-- wears the mask of an aged hag as she cuts down the young girls (and Stryker for good measure).

The middle part of the film creates some tantalizing resonances.  The first actress-victim is actually killed before she ever reaches the mansion, after having a premonitory dream in which she encounters a female baby-doll that attacks her before she is killed.  Following the dream, she's killed by the Hag.  Some time later, the second victim-- and the first victim to be killed at the mansion--finds a doll in the snow.  It just happens to be an exact replica of the dream-doll, save that this doll doesn't come to life, serving only to distract the second victim a moment or two before the hag-killer comes for her.  There's no explanation of the coincidence between one victim's dream and the other's reality, but it adds an extra level of creepiness to the second killing-sequence.

The apparition of the hag-killer is probably the film's strongest moment, though the actual killings are rather mundane and, of course, not overly bloody.  A few scenes after the first mansion-killing, the hag-mask is seen in the equipment Stryker brings for the auditions.  Samantha, despite her status as an escapee, shows up to claim the part of Audra by vying with the younger women.  Stryker, rather than throwing her out, tries to humiliate her by making it part of her audition to wear the mask as she attempts to seduce him-- a patent attempt to portray Samantha as completely "over the hill."  Samantha's humiliation serves to convince the average viewer that she must be the killer, that she stole the mask from Stryker for her first murders.  But of course, all is not as it seems.

The film's biggest flaw is that though one doesn't expect deep characterization for the victims in a slasher-movie, the movie might have profited if there had been a little more to keep one victim from blending in to another, precisely because this was a tonier, less visceral representation of the subgenre. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

THE BLACK TORMENT (1964)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS


I happened to watch this little-heralded Gothic-horror film a little after screening SCREAM OF FEAR, and I couldn't have imagined a better contrast.  Whereas the men behind the SCREAM became so preoccupied with plot-conundrums that they lost all sense of the characters as resonant symbolic presences, director Robert Hartford-Davis and writers Donald and Derek Ford put forth a "phantasmal figuration" that allows the viewer to run with the spooky fantasy.


In 17th-century England, middle-aged Sir Richard Fordyke returns to the family castle, which is still the property of his father Sir Giles, a man so infirm that he must be carted around in a wheelchair.  Until recently Richard has been a widower, for his first wife committed suicide due to gossip about her inability to bear children.  Now Richard brings a new wife, Rebecca-- oops, I mean "Elizabeth"-- who will take over as mistress of the estate and banish all memories of the unfortunate first wife.

Yet as soon as he arrives, Richard hears odd rumors.  The lower classes are concerned about the recent murder of a young girl (in fact, the film opens with the buxom Hammer-esque beauty being strangled by a hard-to-see male assailant).  Some of them think that they've seen Richard himself in the area in advance of his return, and suspect him of taking lethal liberties with the local ladies.  Richard treats the rumors scornfully; has he not been witnessed in London for the past three months, where he met and married Elizabeth? None of his faithful retainers can explain the anomaly, least of all Diane, the sister of Richard's first wife, who now cares for the invalid Giles-- perhaps to avoid being turned out, though this isn't expressly stated.

Soon Richard begins to receive more evidence that the ghost of his first wife Anna may be haunting him, and more murders take place.  Hartford-Davis keeps the Gothic atmosphere intense and suggestive, so that even though the viewer may suspect a mundane explanation for the mysteries, the eerie world seems like one in which a ghost might return, or where Richard might have some sort of menacing doppelganger bent on giving him an evil reputation.  Meanwhile, all these sinister goings-on don't lend themselves to Elizabeth's smooth transition as mistress, giving her the full REBECCA-style treatment.

At the conclusion one learns that it's all merely a plot by Diane and one of the retainers, aimed at unhinging poor Richard.  The idea of haunting him with Anna's spirit-- merely Diane in disguise-- is traditional enough, though I found myself puzzled at the "doppelganger" idea.  Richard, though not unlikable, isn't a particularly deep character for an English lord.  He doesn't seem the type to be mentally unbalanced by rumors of a murderous doppelganger, and the murders of the locals-- as well as Sir Giles-- don't seem to accomplish much in the villains' involved scheme. 

Still, the script's psychological touches make the well-traveled road pleasurable.  Given the influence of JANE EYRE upon duMaurier's REBECCA, the Fords' script could be said to be faithful to that influence in that the "doppelganger" proves to be a variation on Bronte's famous trope of "the madwoman in the attic"-- only this time, it's Richard's deformed, insane brother who has been enlisted to perform the heavy killings.  In addition, after Diane takes a fatal wound in the hectic conclusion, she confesses that she like her sister was in love with Richard and resented his taking another wife.  Thus in a figurative sense Diane really is "Anna" reborn, even to the similarity of their names.



Monday, October 22, 2012

THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*



LIVING DAYLIGHTS, like the Roger Moore opus OCTOPUSSY, takes as its lauching-point one of Ian Fleming’s James Bond short stories.  Whereas the film OCTOPUSSY resembles almost nothing about the original short story, DAYLIGHTS—the first outing for Timothy Dalton as the Bond-producers' fourth James Bond—does use more aspects of the “Living Daylights” short story.

The Fleming tale is a short meditation on the seamy side of spycraft, with particular emphasis on the less than glamorous side of being an agent being “licensed to kill.”  Bond is told that a Soviet defector plans to cross from East Berlin to the city’s western counterpart.  The KGB knows that where he plans to cross, but not from exactly when, so they appoint one of their best snipers, known only as “Trigger,” to stake out the area and kill the defector before he can cross over.  Bond is assigned to stake out the area as well, and to use a high-powered rifle to execute Trigger before the sniper can kill the defector.  Bond hates the assignment and distracts himself by fantasizing about a young woman he sees on the street, carrying a cello-case.  Later he finds out that the young woman is Trigger, carrying her rifle in the case.  When the defector makes his break, Bond partly disobeys his orders out of a chivalrous urge: instead of killing Trigger, he scares “the living daylights” out of her by shooting her rifle instead of her.  He escapes retaliation by other KGB agents but doesn’t mind when his handler tells him he may lose his double-O status due to disobedience.

The above scenario is roughly adapted for the first fifteen minutes of DAYLIGHTS, though one never sees this Bond evince disgust for his assassination assignment.  He’s assigned to protect a defector named Koskov when he crosses to the West, but there’s no mention of a particular KGB assassin known in advance.  While Bond watches the crossing, he spots a young woman who, like Trigger, conceals a rifle in her cello-case.  As in the short story, Bond shoots the rifle from her hands instead of killing her.  But when another agent berates him for sentimentality, Bond claims that the woman was an amateur, and “I only kill professionals.”

No sooner does Koskov arrive in the West than agents of the KGB steal him back, apparently on the order of a Soviet bigwig, General Pushkin.  Bond intuits that there’s another game going on, and tracks down the female cellist, Kara.  By pretending to be a friend of Koskov’s, Bond learns that Kara is Koskov’s girlfriend, and that Koskov instructed her to fire blanks at him as he crossed in order to hoax British Intelligence.

While Bond carries on his investigation, the audience is made privy to Koskov’s dealings.  He’s allied himself to an American arms dealer, Brad Whitaker, for some unknown gambit.  Pushkin, who has been investigating Koskov for embezzlement, had nothing to do with Koskov’s phony kidnapping, and even breaks off the Soviet Union’s relations with Whitaker.  Bond finds his way to Pushkin and convinces the general to fake his own death in order to draw Koskov out.  However, Kara becomes suspicious of Bond and informs on him to Koskov, though she returns to his side when Koskov shows his true colors.

By focusing on Koskov as a renegade, DAYLIGHTS distances itself from the Red-baiting of the early Bond books and films, and depicts Pushkin as a honorable opponent.  True, the action does move to Afghanistan, where Bond and Kara become allied to the Mujahiddeen, but this isn’t used to make any strong comment upon Soviet occupation of the country.  The introduction of Whitaker as a secondary villain is clearly meant to signal the sins of the West, even if he too is a renegade who does not represent official policy.  One problem with this approach, however, is that both Koskov and Whitaker are pedestrian villains. Even the petty drug-dealer Kristatos of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY has more character.  

The short story is of course entirely naturalistic in phenomenality, and so is the bulk of DAYLIGHTS.  Koskov and Whitaker are comparatively mundane opponents compared to such best-remembered Bond-fiends as Goldfinger and Blofeld, and their main plot—to use Russian funds to buy drugs in Afghanistan—is profoundly forgettable.  The only items that elevate DAYLIGHTS to a marvelous phenomenality are a couple of Bond’s special weapons—stun-gas devices and a laser in his car that allows him to slice a Soviet auto in half.  But these items appear so briefly that one suspects the producers wanted to have a few spectacular items in the film to invoke the “glory days” of the 1960s series.

As a minor note, this is one of the few Bond movies with no “bad girl,” although Kara takes on a very slight aspect of one such in a scene where she dopes Bond.  Despite being an amateur, Kara gets into the thick of battle rather quickly, and distinguishes herself well as a “good Bond girl,” even if her character is likewise not very inspired. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

SCREAM OF FEAR (1961)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


The French horror-thriller DIABOLIQUE (1955) earned good box office in America, a success which facillitated Alfred Hitchcock's adaptation of Robert Bloch's novel PSYCHO in 1960.  Seth Holt, directing an original script by Jimmy Sangster, actually comes closer to the basic plot/counterplot structure of the 1955 film, and delivers a strong thriller as well, though not by any means equal to the example of PSYCHO.

When I viewed SCREAM a few years back, I tended to view it through a quasi-Freudian lens.  After all, the film centers upon young crippled heiress Penny Appleby(Susan Strasberg), who has been estranged from her wealthy father for ten years following his divorce of her mother (deceased at the time of the film's beginning).  Having lived in Italy all that time, she returns to the France-based estate of Mr. Appleby, who by this time has married another woman, Jane (Ann Todd).   In Freudian terms, one might well read this scenario as that of the daughter coming to "rescue" her father from a "bad mother," or to be sure, a bad stepmother.  At one point Jane shows herself aware of this sort of scenario, though she protests against being thought of as an evil stepmother out of "fairy tales," not Freudian wishdreams.

Penny's return to her family home, however, is marked by the absence of the father she may have come to "rescue."  Jane and her faithful chaffeur Robert insist that Mr. Appleby has simply left on business and plans to return. But why then does Jane start seeing the corpse of her father popping up at times, only to disappear when anyone else comes to look?  Is Penny the sort of "perilous psycho" (as in BLACK SWAN)  who poses more danger to herself than anyone else?

Though I sometimes anatomize certain film-plots in detail when I feel that it justifies a deep reading, my recent re-viewing of SCREAM convinces me that it doesn't justify such a treatment.  SCREAM is a very skillful blend of suspense and chills, but there's less here than the sum of the screenplay's clockwork parts.  In part this is because the film telegraphs its indebtedness to the so-called "rational Gothic" narrative, in which an apparent haunting is merely a set-up designed to drive someone insane.  Penny's sanity is never seriously in question, so it's plain that we have a "phantasmal figuration" brewing, the only mystery being the identity of the culprits.  The hoaxers' plot is the sort of thing that feels pretty ingenious while it's being related within the context of the film, but in keeping with Hitchcock's famed "refrigerator logic," Sangster's scheme unravels in the cold light of day.  The same thing applies to any psychological tropes, Freudian or otherwise, that one might hope to descry in the film.  Because Penny herself, in the DIABOLIQUE tradition, isn't what she seems either, her inner workings prove subordinate to the mechanics of the plot.  It was Hitchcock's genius that he could disclose revised motivations without losing the sense of the significance of the psychological tropes suggested.  In his hands, a character like Jane Appleby-- who is seen to "steal" men from both the older and younger generations-- might have become a more emotionally charged figure, but Sangster only uses her to connect his dots.

But Sangster and Holt, admirable as they are, are no Stefano and Hitchcock. 

THE SON OF DR. JEKYLL (1951)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: * psychological, sociological*

Within the circumscribed "family" of 1950s horror films, Columbia's SON OF DR JEKYLL seems an odd offshoot.  It's the only horror film directed by one Seymour Friedman, though one of the writers, Jack Pollexfen, had written for Edgar Ulmer's MAN FROM PLANET X and would collaborate on a handful of other metaphenomenal films later in his career.  The film looks much like a 1940s Universal horror-film, in that SON is heavier on action than ghoulishness.  1946 was the last year to see a fair number of "follow-up" horror films, including DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER, SHE WOLF OF LONDON, and THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, but this tendency faded in keeping with the downturn of the genre's popularity during the late 40s and early 50s. In addition, such "horror-series" concepts seem to have dwindled once Universal Studios delivered ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN in 1948, which essentially ended the studio's long association with its celebrated horror-icons. Aside from SON, not until 1955 did any American studio produce another "horror-serial" film, whether the later film's relationship to a previous opus was formal (REVENGE OF THE CREATURE) or informal (ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY).  Only in the late 1950s did Hammer Films successfully resuscitate the concept of the "horror serial" film.

SON is patently an "informal follow-up" to the last major film on Jekyll and Hyde, MGM's 1941 opus.  SON begins in the London of 1860, showing us an amended fate for the original Doctor Jekyll; having just killed his wife in the monstrous form of Hyde, the rogue scientist flees an angry mob. He attempts to use his potion to change back to Jekyll but the mob sees Hyde take refuge in Jekyll's lab and sets the building on fire. In the form of Jekyll the fugitive falls from a great height and perishes, exposing his secret to all of London.  Two of Jekyll's colleagues, Utterson and Lanyon (characters from the original Stevenson story), learn that Jekyll has left behind an infant son. Utterson conceals the infant's history and raises little "Edward" as his own.

However, when Edward reaches maturity and becomes engaged to Utterson's niece, Utterson reveals Edward's true history and cedes to him the family estate of the Jekylls-- including the late Jekyll's notes.  The London press finds out that there's a new Jekyll in town, and they mercilessly persecute the young man, creating in him a desire to reform his father's bad name.  At the same time, Edward begins to see unexplained sights, such as a young woman who appears at his home and then "ghosts" away.  Is he going insane from the stress?  Or is someone manipulating him-- someone who just may have manipulated Henry Jekyll as well?

The answer should be transparent to anyone who knows the tradition of horror-serial films, which tend to exonerate the heirs of horror-icons, and sometimes the icons themselves as well (as seen in the aforementioned DEVIL BAT'S DAUGHTER, for one example).  To give the game away, Henry Jekyll's experiment was tainted by his false friend Dr. Lanyon, and Lanyon has tried to gaslight Edward in order to destroy his reputation and acquire his property.  Edward foils the culprit without unleashing his inner Hyde (though he does transform briefly during an experiment).  In fact, Edward gets into three or four separate hand-to-hand fights in the course of the film, making SON one of the most pugilistically-inclined horror-flicks of the decade, even taking into account similar tendencies in the Italian horrors.

SON is a simplistic melodrama, particularly in terms of its execution of Edward's daddy issues-- though I was amused at one character indirectly invoking HAMLET by speaking to the hero of his "father's ghost."  However, I give it a fair mythicity rating in the sociological department, because of its emphasis on the scurrilous nature of mob mania.  Edward is less of a monster than London, with its ruthless journalists and scummy blackmailers (the source of Edward's supposed delusion with the girl).  SON does at least imitate a tradition of horror-films seen in many better films, not least the 1925 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and James Whales' two FRANKENSTEIN films, in which the crowd terrorized by the monster becomes a monster in its own right. There's a slight "class warfare" element to the blackmailer subplot, though it hardly compares with the same theme as invoked in the last two major Jekyll-Hyde films.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949), BATWOMAN (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological*


Two bat-flights this time out, one sanctioned by DC Comics as a legitimate adaptation of BATMAN, the other meant to ride the coattails of the sixties' successful Bat-teleseries.

In my review of the 1943 Batman serial, I said that although the production values were "cheapjack," director Lambert Hillyer occasionally gave certain scenes an Expressionistic flair in keeping with the original inspirations of the comic book series.  The serial also benefitted from a pleasingly hateful villain, even if he isn't politically correct in modern times.

In contrast, Columbia's second and last Batman serial lacks any virtue except the sort of fast action characteristic of serial-king Spencer G. Bennett.  Unfortunately, because the budget still isn't good enough to give the titular heroes decent costumes, the action-scenes look much less impressive than in Bennett's strongest serial-works, such as 1943's MASKED MARVEL.  Robert Lowery takes over the role of Batman but doesn't manage the Zorro-esque charm of the previous actor, while John Duncan rarely impresses watchers with anything but the sense that he's far too old to be a "boy wonder."

The serial does at least score with a powerful masked villain, the Wizard, who boasts abilities of hypnotism and (eventually) invisibility.  However, his main raison d'etre is that he commands a machine that allows him to control cars and other motor-vehicles remotely, which seems like a rather punk device next to, say, the Flying Wing seen in both 1937's DICK TRACY and 1938's FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS. There's not much suspense devoted to revealing the villain's identity in that the serial provides a prominant red herring but no "least likely suspects."  On the whole BATMAN AND ROBIN's best moments are those that proved unintentionally funny, as when Batman fights a hood who accidentally (?) rips off his cape, whereon the hero tries to re-don it during the fight.



BATWOMAN, unfortunately, doesn't have even "so-bad-it's-good" moments.  For once, though we do have a Mexican superhero-character who wrestles (albeit only briefly), Batwoman doesn't seem to be a wrestler by profession.  One of her allies tells the audience that she's independently wealthy a la her model Bruce Wayne, though she chooses to be a selfless crimefighter.  Played by Maura Monti, Batwoman doesn't have any weapons except her sexy body, and only has one semi-lengthy fight against the thugs employed by her opponent, the mundanely named "Dr. Eric Williams."

Williams follows the pattern of many previous "luchadores" films in which wrestler-heroes battle mad scientists.  In particular Williams and his aides are attempting to breed an army of gillmen with which to take over the world, or something like that.  Williams has no particular motivation beyond being a standard mad scientist, and his gillmen are just the usual men-in-suits, given no great flair by director Rene Cardona Sr.

I realize that Cardona directed many, many more films than what most Americans know of his oeuvre, which is mostly the superhero/horror films.  However, I've found the few works I have seen pretty dull going, and that includes BATWOMAN, which includes a lot of slow-going underwater location scenes.  I've mentioned that Monti only gets one fight-scene, but aside from some sub-sea gymnastics, she spends a lot of time in conversational scenes. 

I can imagine a lot of fantasy-fans enjoying BATWOMAN just for its virtue of simplicity: it certainly never pretends to be anything more than what it is. But I'd rather re-watch what may be Cardona's best such film, the far more lively "luchadora" film DOCTOR OF DOOM.

LAND OF THE LOST (1974-77)




PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: * psychological, cosmological, sociological*


I'm not sure why I didn't watch LAND OF THE LOST back in the day.  I assume that I thought I'd become too old for it, since it was focused on a younger age-bracket.  Over the years I heard a lot of good things about the relatively consistent treatment of the sci-fi concept, which dealt with three modern-day people-- adult Rick Marshall and his two kids Will and Holly-- being transported into a prehistoric universe inhabited by dinosaurs, ape-people, and a race of reptillian humanoids possessed of a half-understood ancient technology.  But I didn't check it out, even though I'd heard that a number of famed SF-prose writers contributed scripts, including David Gerrold, Ben Bova and Theodore Sturgeon.

Having watched all three seasons now, I'm sure I would have liked it when I was in the age-range of the show's kid-characters. The stories are simple but logical, and show good sentiment without becoming treacly.  Considering that this was the period during which children's television shows were expected to exhibit "prosocial values," LOST's stories make their prosocial points with a minimum of preachments.

Symbolically speaking, LOST's most interesting facet is how it opposes the friendly humanoid ape-men, the "Pakuni," against the inflexibly hostile reptile-men, the "Sleestack."  The Pakuni, though sometimes slow to accept the humans and their makeshift technology, suggest the appeal of humanity's anthropoid ancestors, and their ability to learn from the Marshalls suggests their ability to move forward.  In contrast, though the Sleestack possess technological knowledge handed down from their ancestors, they remain locked in primitivism and are unable to move forward-- revealing perhaps more commonality with the Satanic snake in Eden than the Land's furry versions of Adam (and presumably Eve, though no female Pakuni are seen). Only one Sleestack named Enik (Enoch?) retains knowledge, but he is a time-traveler and not typical of his people.

The third and final season becomes a little too much like Gilligan's Island, as far too many "guest-stars" are allowed to pass through the time-vortex and join the Earthpeople-- which by this time included the kids' uncle, brought in to replace the actor who'd been playing the father but chose to split from the show.  There was less emphasis on believable science in the last season as well, but this didn't turn out as badly as it could have-- and I confess I like the invention of Torchy, the fire-breathing sailback dino (seen above).

As I reached the series' end, I didn't expect a wrap-up. I didn't get one, either.  But even though I didn't grow up with this show, I rather wished the producers had allowed the kids to escape the Land of the Lost.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR FU MANCHU (1929)




PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*

This Paramount film, the first sound adaptation of Sax Rohmer's famous Chinese arch-fiend, transforms the "devil-doctor" into a rather pedestrian serial murderer.  The film was directed by Rowland V. ("SON OF FRANKENSTEIN") Lee, who also directed the sequel, and co-written by Lloyd Corrigan, who had writing credits on all three of Paramount's Fu-related films.  Perhaps one should blame them for the transformation, in which this version of Fu seems closer in spirit to a production like Lon Chaney's 1927 MR. WU than with the Rohmer creation.

There are, to be sure, some touches indicating that the writers did research the Rohmer books.  The names of Fu's perennial opponents Nayland Smith and Doctor Petrie are used, though the new characters have very different histories from their prose versions.  One of policeman Nayland Smith's subordinates sports the name "Weymouth," who was a recurring cop-character in the early books.  At one point Nayland Smith even addresses the villain as "the insidious Doctor Fu Manchu," which was the American title of the first Rohmer Fu-novel.

But it's plain that the filmmakers wanted no part of Rohmer's "yellow peril" mad scientist, even though they couldn't avoid the central theme of racial conflict implied by the figure of Fu Manchu.  As an interesting touch, the movie's Nayland Smith consults at one point with the Chinese legation, whose representative expresses that Fu Manchu is no fit representative of the Chinese people.  It's possible that Lee and Corrigan meant to scale down the mythic nature of their Fu's evil, so that he would no longer seem to be a "yellow peril."

The only facet that the prose villain and this one have in common is that both of them evolve from the violence of the Boxer Rebellions, during which Chinese "secret societies" attempted to throw off the yoke of European influence in China.  In the first novel, Fu Manchu is an exceptionally gifted member of one such society. 

In MYSTERIOUS, this Fu Manchu (Warner Oland) is a gifted Chinese doctor who believes that the white people in his land are essentially beneficial.  However, when some Boxers take refuge in his house, the British army blast away at them, incidentally killing Fu's wife and son.  In Oland's only good acting-moment, Fu is catastrophically traumatized by his loss, and he plans to avenge himself on the Englishmen who took part in his tragedy. 

As it happens, one of Fu's white colleagues leaves his little daughter in Fu's care prior to the man's death.  Though civilized Fu initially treats little Lia as a daughter, vengeful Fu sees her as the emblem of the accursed white race.  Though Lia (Jean Arthur) grows to adulthood as Fu's ward, believing her foster-father to be entirely saintlike, Fu plans to use her to help him kill his targets.

He does so with his only metaphenomenal talent, for this Fu, somewhat like the prose version, is a master of hypnotism.  The film jumps in time between Lia's childhood and Lia's adulthood, during which time Fu manages to slay most of the British soldiers who wronged him.  Presumably he uses Lia as some kind of mesmerized stalking-horse, possibly setting the victims up to be poisoned, since Nayland Smith comments that this is the killer's dominant method.  Certainly this seems to be Lia's function when she encounters Fu's last two targets, General Petrie and his son Jack.  Of the two only the older man actually participated in the Boxer Wars, but Fu has sworn to end the family lines of all who injured him.

It should be no great surprise when young Lia falls in love with one of her intended targets, young Jack Petrie (Neil Hamilton, later of BATMAN teleseries fame). Jack happens to be a medical doctor like the "Doctor Petrie" of the novels, though Jack Petrie's profession doesn't have any impact on the narrative.  Fortunately for the Petrie family, Inspector Nayland Smith has been investigating the murders, though he doesn't initially know that the respected doctor Fu Manchu is behind the killings.  However, he ferrets out Fu in jig-time.  The Petries are saved and Fu chooses to drink his own poison to evade Western justice.

Lee's direction, allegedly done for both silent and sound versions, has a stagey look, though at times the action is allowed to ramp up slightly.  Dialogue has a crisp sound to it, but Fu is the only individual who gets any meaningful characterization; the rest are just simple ciphers.  The plot gives Lia a few opportunities to agonize at having been betrayed by her father-figure, but Jean Arthur's performance is over-ripe, just as Oland's Fu is a little on the bland side.  There's the usual bad comedy relief for the period, of course.  A minor character, a female Chinese servant who helped Fu raise Lia, proves that not all Chinese are bad in that the servant distracts Fu at a crucial time, allowing Lia to avoid poisoning her lover.

As mentioned I think it's possible that Lee and Corrigan sought to make Fu more human, a victim of real tragedy-- although none of the characters seems to feel any of his pain, with the inspector reducing him to "criminal insanity."  However, this Fu is largely a stock Chinese character for the period who is never more than the sum of his parts.  His personal tragedy in no way reflects on the justice or injustice of British imperialism; it's just a method to motivate the murders.  In one sense, though I'm aware that a fictional figure like the prose Fu Manchu could be used as a boogeyman by conservative interests, the idea of a Chinese supergenius, even if evil, casts a far longer shadow than this simple melodramatic construction.

This Fu uses none of the outre weaponry of his prose original, and only utilizes hypnotism on his faux-daughter.  If this element were not present, I might consider MYSTERIOUS just as naturalistic in its phenomenality as the aforementioned MISTER WU.

And though I deem most Fu Manchu films, like the books, to fall within the mythic category of "adventure," the attempt to scale Fu down to a pathetic serial murderer allies this film more with the mythos of drama.  I have not yet screened the sequel, but tend to believe from descriptions that it too falls into the same category.



Monday, October 15, 2012

BLACK MOON (1934)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 

In my reviews for two Halperin Brothers films, WHITE ZOMBIE and REVENGE OF THE ZOMBIES, I thought it odd that the first film didn’t dwell on the sociological theme of black zombies being forced to labor for a white overseer, while the later film did invoke a similar theme with respect to Cambodian victims of Euro-imperialism.  I briefly wondered if the theme had been repressed in WHITE ZOMBIE due to American sensitivities about the history of real-world slavery.  The nature of Columbia's 1934 BLACK MOON, however, would suggest that not every producer was so reticent.

BLACK MOON is the sort of horror-film seemingly made for Marxist analysis, dealing as it does with the demonization of an imperialized people (the black natives of fictional Caribbean island San Christopher) and the horror of a member of a dominant race (Caucasian in this case) as she “goes native.”  I don’t deny that this sort of “sociological mythicity” does exist; I simply don’t believe that sociological myths are as central to human art as Marxist analysts like to think.  However, while BLACK MOON has the potential to develop in the other three Campbellian categories—psychological, cosmological, or metaphysical—it really doesn’t develop beyond the matrix of the sociological.  I will say that the central myth of MOON is that of Faustian temptation, which exceeds the boundaries of the imperialism theme.

The film opens in America with a seemingly happy family consisting of prosperous businessman Steven Lane (Jack Holt), his wife Juanita (Dorothy Burgess) and their small girl-child Nancy.  But though Juanita has been absent from her birthplace San Christopher for roughly five years, she suddenly begins to yearn after the island.  She begins playing drums in imitation of the natives of San Christopher, and conveys her intention to visit the plantation of her uncle Doctor Perez.  In response he sends an emissary named Macklin to dissuade her.  In a conversation between Juanita and Macklin, Macklin reminds Juanita that when she was a child, her black nurse Ruva initiated her into the rituals of blood sacrifice.  Juanita was “poisoned by the voodoo,” as Macklin puts it. Juanita refuses to be deterred, planning to take her daughter and daughter’s nanny with her to her uncle’s estate.

 Steven, somewhat worried about Juanita’s behavior, asks his private secretary Gail (Fay Wray) to go along on the trip.  Gail—who has almost resigned from Steven’s service because she’s secretly in love with him—consents.

Dr. Perez is far from happy to receive his niece, but the natives celebrate Juanita’s return.  In time we learn that Perez was responsible for saving Juanita from her black nurse’s ministrations and sending her to America, where she met Steven.  Curiously, Perez still employs Ruva on his plantation, which seems rather strange given her culpability in seducing Perez's niece.  The closest one can come to “explaining” this lapse is that later Perez tells Steven that at the same time he liberated Juanita he killed the natives’ high priest, which had the (extremely convenient) effect of pacifying the entire native population due to their fears that their gods had turned against them.  Now that Juanita has returned, it’s clear that the natives still have plans for her.  One of their first acts is to kill Nancy’s nanny so that evil Ruva can take over the child's care.

The natives’ reach even extends, very improbably, to America, in that one of their men journeys there and kills Macklin just as the emissary is attempting to warn Steven.  One might think that this event would send Steven speeding to San Christopher, but for some reason—presumably to build tension in the film-- he remains in America until Gail manages to sneak out a telegram to him despite the watchfulness of the natives. 

On the way there Steven makes the acquaintance of a sailor named Lunch (Clarence Muse), a black American from Georgia.  They bond somewhat because Lunch has a girlfriend on the island, though he like Steven is worried about the influence of voodoo.  In an extremely bizarre if brief conversation, Lunch refers to the islanders—including his own girlfriend—as “monkeychasers.”  He explains the epithet as a reference to the natives' habit of chasing monkeys to steal their coconuts.  I can't help but suspect that the writer who coined the epithet-- possibly Clements Ripley, who originated the magazine short story on which the film was based-- may have really had on his mind the then-prevalent racial fantasy about black people mating with apes.

By the time Steven reaches the island, it’s too late for Juanita, for she's become totally engrossed with voodoo worship.  Perez reveals more of Juanita’s strange story to Steven, mentioning that Juanita’s parents were killed in one of many periodic native uprisings, and that Ruva inducted her into voodoo-rites that went on until Perez found out when Juanita reached age fifteen.  Steven asks this rather negligent father-figure why he stays on the island despite the repeated trouble.  Significantly, Perez states his case in terms of personal courage rather than personal profit, saying that many of his people have died here but that “we have never run.”

With Hunch’s help Steven manages to spy on a voodoo ceremony.  He’s dismayed to see that Juanita has become the voodoo queen, dancing orgiastically before a huge crowd of male and female worshippers.  The high priest prepares to execute the scheduled sacrifice, who is none other than Lunch’s girlfriend.  Steven, who’s brought a gun to the game, shoots the high priest before he can kill the woman.  Steven and Lunch flee the area, not seeing that the sacrificial victim is finished off by Juanita (though the camera shows the act at such a distance that it’s hard to make out).

  The natives don’t immediately strike back, but rather send Juanita into the plantation house.  Steven keeps mum and doesn’t reveal that he knows what she’s become.  Juanita brews a drink to knock out her husband, but the girl Nancy accidentally sips it instead, revealing the plot but taking no permanent harm.
 
The natives attack the house in force.  Steven, Perez, Gail and Nancy try to escape, but only Perez gets away.  Juanita schedules her husband and her husband’s would-be lover to be sacrificed. Perez manages to come back and rescue the two adults. This leaves the worshippers with but one candidate for sacrifice: the little girl.  For the first time, Juanita resists her indoctrination, horrified at the thought of killing her own blood-kin.  However, the spell of the drums is upon her, and when the ceremony commences, the only thing that saves Nancy is that Steven shoots his wife from afar.  The natives are shocked into docility by their priestess’ murder, and they allow Steven to reclaim his daughter without further violence. 

This docility apparently allows Perez to return to power once more, for after Juanita’s killing, he appears back on the island for one last scene, laying flowers upon his niece’s gravesite while surrounded by a couple dozen black natives, some of whom wear Christian robes and sing Christian-sounding hymns.  Lunch mans a sailboat in which Steven leaves the island with his daughter and with Gail.  By this time, Gail has confessed her hidden love to Steven, making it possible for the “bad wife” to be replaced by a good one.

Strangely, despite the film’s title I recall no mentions of the moon or its phases.  Most likely the title connotes the state of total darkness that ensues during the “dark of the moon,” which in turn connotes the idea of black races rising against white mastery.  However, this mild poeticism is the only one asserted by MOON’s script.  Despite the fact that the plot references such lurid subject matter as blood-sacrifice, brainwashing, racial antipathies and a woman almost committing a Medea-style murder, both script and direction are pedestrian, lacking the sort of delirious quality of WHITE ZOMBIE or Edgar Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT. 

All of the characters—including Juanita, functionally the “monster” of this horror-opus— are treated as little more than bare plot-functions.  Their dialogue is never more than adequate to keep the plot rolling, lacking the sort of humanized touches that give the characters their own provisional identity.  Juanita, having been polluted by a "taste for blood" at an early age, does not attempt to justify her status as a voodoo-queen, and her one moment of rebellion has no narrative impact.  At the same time, she doesn’t glory in her evil, so her execution has no purgative effect.

The racial politics are the most noteworthy aspect of BLACK MOON.  San Christopher is patently a stand-in for Haiti, for Perez even comments that the sacrificial cultists are mostly “hill-bandits from Haiti.”  But there’s a curious quality to this particular voodoo film as against others from the first half of the twentieth century.  Most Caribbean-based voodoo-films tend to portray the natives as largely docile, and voodoo raises its ugly head in the form of just one ambitious voodoo priest, often a rogue white man like Murder Legendre in WHITE ZOMBIE.  BLACK MOON does not for an instant allude to any past injustices done to the black natives of its faux-Haiti. Still, Perez emphasizes that their uprisings are a continuing phenomenon, even though the natives can be quelled by a blow to their superstitious fears.  Admittedly, by the more racist views of the time, this sort of reaction proves that the black natives “need” to be ruled.  Still, the mention of continued uprisings produces the effect of a native population that’s always discontented with the rule of the white masters, even if MOON won’t suggest that there’s any good reason for that discontent.

There’s also a strange elision in the script: why do the black natives want Juanita for their voodoo queen in the first place?  Of the various black natives seen on-camera, only two—the nurse and the high priest—are given names and speaking lines, and neither of them justifies their desire to suborn Juanita.  I speculate that the implicit motive is one of humiliation: after killing Juanita’s parents, the voodoo-worshippers wish to degrade Juanita by tempting her with the Faustian illusion of power.  This would prove that this member of the “ruling class” can be brought down to their level-- which seems a bit like an inversion of the old "natives-need-white-queen-because-they-think-she's-magic."
 
Still, it's hard to know how much intentionality with which to credit the cultists.  At one point, they can be perspicacious enough to send an assassin to kill Macklin, yet at other points, they can become poleaxed whenever someone kills their high priest.  It would seem that the writer had no clear idea of his devilish pagans; they act cleverly when it suits the writer’s purpose, and stupidly for the same reason. 

           This would seem to be director Roy William Neill's second horror film, depending on whether or not the same-year NINTH GUEST can be deemed in the horror genre.  His direction is workmanlike here, showing none of the panache visible in next year's THE BLACK ROOM, much less his celebrated Sherlock Holmes films.

 

 

   

  

 

 

        

Saturday, October 13, 2012

TROLL 2 (1990)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: * psychological, metaphysical*

Inasmuch as I've already devoted too litcrit-theory essays to the subject of the insanity that wasTROLL 2-- Part 1 here, and Part 2 here-- I'm not going to devote any great time here to recounting the "plot," if one can call it that. But since I recently re-watched it, and found the film even more gratuitously meaningless than I did before.  It took a perverse sort of anti-genius on the parts of director Claudio Fragasso and writer/wife Rosella Drudi that they were able to mount such an inimitable "perfect storm" of muddled myth-motifs and fractured fantasies-- apparently with little or no realization as to just how bad their work would seem.

Here, in a nutshell, is what I wrote about the *potential* mythic content of TROLL 2:

Two aspects already noted in TROLL PLAYING PART 1 include both vampire tropes and folklore about cannibalistic boogiemen (for which Scandinavian trolls *might* actually be better suited than Celtic goblins). I'll also speculate that given the film's heavy emphasis on the goblins forcing the beleaguered human protagonists to eat tainted food so that the humans will turn into plants, Drudi might even have been influenced by the mythic motif I'll call "eating the otherworld's food," which invariably causes mortals from Persephone on down to remain in the otherworld.
These "potential myths," as I noted earlier, were so thoroughly undermined by the filmmaker's uncritical "everything including the kitchen sink"sensibility that they aren't even comic inversions of the "straight-faced" tropes.   They're just weird hybrids, clues that seem to lead to absolutely nothing.

One other motif I neglected to note, because it appeared so briefly: at one point in the "story," a protagonist claims that all of the goblins in their human forms have facial moles that resemble "four-leaf clovers."  It's not mentioned earlier, nor does it play any role in the narrative.  Apparently it was just a weird idea that Drudi or Fragasso thought of tossing in, just to make the villains a little more gross (not that more grossness is necessary).  But why graft on the goblins the symbol of good luck?  Did Fragasso and Drudi confuse their goblins with Irish leprechauns? 

Even though I get no small satisfaction from "solving" the presence of some oddball motif in a cheap B-movie like PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES, I have to tip my hat to a movie that seems designed to frustrate a myth-hunter like myself.

And, having so tipped, the rest is silence.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

THE LONE RANGER (1938)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*


Five years after the premiere of THE LONE RANGER on radio, the character-- whose backstory had remained vague up to then-- was given an "origin story" that became the accepted mythology for both the Ranger and his Indian friend Tonto.  Ironically, though the owner of the franchise George Trendle disliked various aspects of the Republic serial's script, he imported the "last surviving Texas Ranger" origin into later iterations of the hero's adventures.  Allegedly this is also the first time those adventures used the "William Tell Overture" that became inextricably tied to the character.

The story evolved from five credited writers and was directed by the reigning kings of the sound serials, William Witney and John English.  Perhaps their interest in regular western films caused the creators to plot the RANGER serial a little more tightly than most.  Many serials tend to unfold all of their basic characters and setups in the first two episodes and began to fall into a repetitious pattern in which the villain keeps pursuing some goal and the hero keeps stopping him, but doesn't catch the evildoers until the final episode.

RANGER starts with a basic idea seen in many films: have the villain, here one "Captain Smith," usurp the position of a legally constituted authority-figure in order to hide his evil deeds.  Captain Smith, along with a coterie of bandits, kills a man named Jeffries, appointed to administer tax collection in Texas, and assumes Jeffries' identity.  When he fears that a contingent of Texas Rangers may interfere with his control of the local constabulary, Smith/Jeffries has his men gun them down from hiding.  One ranger survives, thanks to the ministrations of Tonto (Chief Thundercloud).

The Lone Ranger opposes the villain's taxation and stirs up other locals to oppose him as well.  Smith hopes to break the rebellion by uncovering the Ranger's identity, but it happens there are five guys in town with the build of the Ranger, all of whom are resisters.  This subplot had been used in earlier serials, in which the audience was encouraged to guess which candidate was the real Ranger.  This is one of the less worthwhile devices of the serial, partly because all of the candidates are just cookie-cutter goodguys, partly because the serial concludes by actually showing the audience the face of the real Lone Ranger.  And you know you don't pull the mask off that ol' Lone Ranger.

Still, though there are the usual breathless cliffhanger escapes here, some non-villainous characters do get killed for real, and the script gives their deaths more gravity than one usually sees in serials.  A notable death is that of the blacksmith who makes the Ranger's silver bullets, who's rather easily tracked down by Smith's owlhoots-- thus suggesting that the "silver bullet" gimmick is one that doesn't work too well if the hero's operations are confined to one locale.

This Ranger (played by Lee Powell) is no namby-pamby milksop.  In one scene, he rescues Tonto from Smith's men when Tonto's about to be whipped.  While Tonto keeps a gun on the goons, the Ranger challenges the leader to a fight and wipes up the desert with the thug.  Later, Smith/Jeffries gets the brilliant idea to marry heroine Joan to keep her from testifying against him.  The Ranger and Tonto interrupt the nuptials, after which the hero slashes the outlaw-boss with a whip, warning him not to try forced marriage again.  Needless to say, no wedding-bells are heard in future installments.

The sociological issues in this serial are necessarily broad, but the partnership of the white lawman and the faithful Indian companion seems portrayed as an alliance of equals here.  As with Zorro, there's some enjoyment to be had from seeing the hero defy the minions of the law, even when the law has been taken over by ilicit impostors.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

TIN MAN (2007)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: * psychological*


I'm certainly glad I gave TIN MAN a pass the first time the mini-series premiered on the SYFY Channel.  Had I seen it before screening NEVERLAND, a mini-series on roughly the same theme and directed by the same director, the memory of TIN MAN's abject awfulness might have spoiled my enjoyment of Willing's later opus.

My review of NEVERLAND should make clear that I'm not a literalist with respect to adaptations.  I enjoyed NEVERLAND even though it rewrote the "Peter Pan" continuity of J. M. Barrie, and even professed a mild liking for Willing's 2009 mini-series, which turned ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND into a simplistic "outsider saves the world" scenario.

Happily, there's an explanation as to why the later Willing directorial efforts come off better: he wrote ALICE and NEVERLAND, while TIN MAN is credited to a writer-producer team named Mitchell and Van Long.  I choose to blame these gentlemen for not just being free in their adaptation of L. Frank Baum's WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, but for using the OZ concept as an excuse to make a thoroughly tedious take on STAR WARS.  Interestingly, I spotted the writers' indebtedness to the Lucas franchise before looking up the team's credits, which happened to include three episodes of STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS about four years after TIN MAN.

Whereas Willing's scripts for ALICE and NEVERLAND show some awareness of the narrative myths underlying the original works of Carroll and Barrie, the Mitchell-Van Long script for TIN MAN pays only superficial attention to both the content of Baum's Oz books and the classic MGM film-adaptation.  One can understand any adaptor wanting to avoid close comparison with a work as iconic as the 1939 WIZARD OF OZ, but the duo's approach does so by descending into stock cliches and tired characterizations.

The viewpoint character here is a modern-day decendant of Dorothy Gale, "D.G." (Zooey Deschanel), but in the first section her real-world discontents take a decided back seat to the character of "Wyatt Cain," who approximates the Tin Man of the novels and movies.  In the typical Oz narrative all of Dorothy's male accomplices are damaged figures who take inspiration from her in order to act decisively.  Wyatt Cain has assorted issues dealing with the loss of his family at the hands of the evil sorceress Azkadellia-- but damaged and in need of inspiration he is not.  Cain is the standard "tough sheriff" of westerns, with his designation "tin man" referring to his former status as a policeman in "the O.Z." or "Outer Zone."  Though Cain is not very much like the characterization of Han Solo in STAR WARS, I  speculate that the producers drew on memories of STAR WARS and its space-opera transformation of western tropes in order to give their Oz-imitation a more standard figure of male efficacy.

The standins for "the Scarecrow" and "the Cowardly Lion" *are* allowed to be more in line with other versions. "Glitch/Scarecrow" must find a way to cope with his scattered brains (removed from his skull by the sorceress) and "Raw/Lion" must find his courage, etc.  But both proved flat characters lacking in the humor seen in the 1939 film, so their efforts aroused in me little identification.

As the charmless foursome continue their peregrinations throughout the O.Z., D.G.'s story-arc is given more emphasis.  She learns that the parents who raised her on Earth were androids, who are technically called "homos," thus leading to screamingly stupid lines like, "How do you find a homo?"  D.G.'s real parents are the King and Queen of Oz, both held in prison by the adolescent Azkadelllia-- who happens to be D.G.'s sister.  However, Azkadellia's tyrannies are not entirely her fault.  When the two girls were very young, they trespassed on a cave where the spirit of a witch-- implicitly the Wicked Witch of the West-- attacks them.  D.G. flees, making it possible for Azkadellia to be possessed by the witch's spirit.

Three years later, Tim Burton would also craft a version of ALICE in which two female rulers in Oz were at odds as a result of sibling rivalry.  However, Burton's version allows for some adroit characterizational moments, while the conflict between D.G. and Azkadellia never goes beyond the level of reciting necessary plot-points.  Moreover, Azkadellia's plot to dominate the O.Z. with a device called a "Sun-Seeder" lacks any mythic resonance, standing in for a threat comparable to the "Death Star" of the original STAR WARS.

Generally the performers acquit themselves adequately despite the lumpish dialogue and too many scenes that amount to filling in time for a long, three-part narrative.  But none of the performances are worth suffering through the tin-eared dialogue of TIN MAN.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

BLANKMAN (1994), C.H.O.M.P.S. (1979)



PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) *psychological, sociological,* (2) *psychological*


"A black man would rather miss than look bad."-- Woody Harrelson's character in WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP.

I can't say I found BLANKMAN very funny, but as the above illo shows, the two black stars (Damon Wayans, David Alan Grier) don costumes that make them look REALLY bad.  That does demand a special sort of *chutzpah.*

The film has its most amusing moments toward the start, when Wayans' Darryl and Grier's Kevin are seen as children, geeking out over the 1966 BATMAN show while trying to watch it on a malfunctioning TV set.  Then the two kids quickly grow up-- or at least one of them does, mentally speaking.  Kevin becomes a normal guy who works for a television news show, where he lusts after anchorwoman Kimberly (Robin Givens).  Darryl remains frozen in geekhood, working on various absurd and worthless inventions while being supported by Kevin and cared for by their grandmother.

Crime, under the control of mob boss Minelli (Jon Polito), runs rampant in a city where the police are both lazy and chicken-hearted.  Darryl and Kevin's grandmother practices social activism and gets rubbed out by Minelli's thugs.  The more childlike Darryl takes her loss harder than Kevin does, but he also has the more proactive response.  Though he can't fight, he does possess enough science-knowledge to design a bulletproof superhero costume for himself, though oddly, he's not egoistic enough to even come up with a hero-name.  He succeeds in his first crimefighting efforts by luck and gumption, and through the usual misunderstanding the press dubs him "Blankman."  Darryl invites Kevin to join him as his crimefighting partner.  Kevin declines.

To Kevin's dismay, crusading reporter Kimberly falls for the mysterious stumblebum superhero.  But when Minelli's crooks stage a trap for Blankman, Kevin steps up, dons his costume, and uses his karate-skills to fight alongside his dotty brother.  Darryl does have a few oddball inventions that help them out: some funky jet-skates, a bomb-sniffing robot made from a old washing-machine.  Since these, like Blankman's bulletproof costume, are only slight improvements on then-current technology, they're subsumed under the phenomenal category of the uncanny.

Though the script validates the wishful thinking of childhood, the theme isn't pursued with any rigor.  Polito's Minelli is, though not a supervillain, slightly bigger-than-life: he boasts of wearing pure satin clothes when he robs a bank and rises to the comic-book model by constructing a death-trap for the captured heroes.  Givens plays her Lois Lane role straight, which allows her to be a decent foil to Wayans' antics.  The most interesting theme suggested by the sibling rivalry between Darryl and Kevin.  This has less to do with their sexual competition for some Freudian mother-figure (though Kimberly does echo the grandmother's social activism) than with the fact that Kevin has to be the "father" in the relationship, trying to force his simple sibling to grow up.  Darryl, the "fantasy-principle" to Kevin's "reality-principle," rarely shows overt resentment toward Kevin, although I did find it significant that Kevin gets shot, albeit nonfatally, because Darrly neglects to tell him that his superhero suit ISN'T bulletproof.




CHOMPS (which I refuse to keep typing with the damned periods) has three scripters but the main story is credited to long-time cartoon-producer Joseph Barbera.  Possibly the most entertaining section of the film is the animated credits-sequence, which shows an enemy spy being repeatedly undone by a clever dog, who at one point utters a "wheeze-laugh" like that of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon-dog "Muttley."

I file this one under the "psychological" Campbellian function simply because the main plotline centers around a trope almost as old as Greek Old Comedy: Young Man desires Young Woman but must first validate himself with Young Woman's father.  But this element is kept to a very simple level, for it's clear from the start that this is a low-impact kid-oriented comedy, tied to children's love for dogs-- including the robot dog of the title, whom the Young Man invents in order to impress the Young Woman's father.  To be sure the film did come out in a PG version in 1979-- the only offensive material stemming from the "salty language" of another dog-character who can think like a human being.  The filmmakers also released a "G" version, which was probably more in line with the script's basic nature.

Simple comedies have their own charms, of course.  However, Barbera's story doesn't show an awareness as to how to increase tension, even after the example of vanilla-but-still-endearing comedies like Disney's THE COMPUTER WORE TENNIS SHOES.  The film starts out with the Young Man (Wesley Eure of LAND OF THE LOST) demonstrating to his girlfriend how his robot dog will be the next great thing in crime-prevention. If BLANKMAN was indebted to the myth of Batman, CHOMPS patterns itself on Superman.  Not only does "Chomps" possess super-strength, super-speed and X-ray vision, the aforementioned "thinking dog" even recites his take on the old Superman slogan: "It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Super-dog!"

But in contrast to BLANKMAN, CHOMPS doesn't come up with decent villains who might ratchet up the tension, even for a kid's comedy.  The main villain, played by Jim Backus, depends on two bumbling crooks to uncover the secret of "Chomps."  The mere fact that this character can't find better-- or at least funnier-- help made me long for the comparative ruthlessness of Cesar Romero in the TENNIS SHOES film.  Once Barbera's script establishes the wonderment of the powers available to "Chomps" (played by the canine star of the "Benji" flicks), said script keeps repeating similar stunts over and over, as if it were stapling a bunch of unassociated cartoons together.

By 1979 director Don Chaffey had done a number of "animal-pictures," including Disney's THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA, which also made considerable use of an "varmint voiceover."  His direction here is pedestrian, but it's no more than the script deserves.  CHOMPS looks to have been his last animal-focused effort.  Fantasy-fans are more likely to remember for such disparate works as 1963's JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and 1975's PERSECUTION.

The best aspect of this dog of a movie is the familiarity of the cast: Eure, Backus, Valerie Bertinelli, Conrad Bain, and even bungling henchmen Chuck McCann and Red Buttons, despite the laugh-impaired script they execute.

I regard both of these as "combative comedies" because both do build on superhero tropes, though CHOMPS is something of a stretch.


ADDENDA: Changed my mind on the latter pronouncement: the dog's blundering opponents are too low-energy to allow for the combative mode.